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Democracy at The Old Vic

Fiona Doyle

Michael Frayn's Democracy is a slow-burning piece focusing on the strained politics of late 1960s/early 1970s West Germany.

But at the heart of the wider political framework is the personal story of the relationship between West German chancellor Willy Brandt and his closest aide, Gunter Guillaume.

It is a story of divided loyalties and betrayal as the latter was eventually revealed to be an agent of the East German secret service, leading to Brandt's resignation in 1974.

With a cast of ten in total, Paul Miller's production is smooth and slick but a little difficult to engage with at times. It is a play led by dialogue and although expertly crafted by the playwright, the narrative frequently seems too thick to penetrate and is quite often delivered statically.

I found myself thinking Democracy might work just as well on radio. Or, with some development, as a novel. The weighty script relies heavily on characters delivering mountains of complicated political information.

The set, a dimly-lit, smoke-filled interior representing party headquarters, while atmospheric and astute, hardly changes for the duration of the play. It helps to create a sense of the oppressive and all-consuming nature of the turbulent political climate at the time, but it's also a little tiresome on the eye.

So much so that the appearance of beach chairs to represent a change of location for Guillaume and Brandt provides a sense of relief from the pall of insistent smoke hanging over party officials.

The pace quickens during the second act as Guillaume comes ever closer to being found out. And there are also some great supporting performances from the likes of William Hoyland as Herbert Wehner.

Democracy is a good play written by a great playwright even though it lacks emotional punch and leaves the audience feeling a little lukewarm. But it is mainly an interesting study of the nature of democracy and the difficulty of agreeing on a common policy not just within the world of politics, but within ourselves also.

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